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Editor's Blog: A day in the life of a review writer at Pocket Gamer

How we make the tricky decisions

Product: Pocket Gamer | Manufacturer: Steel Media
 
Pocket Gamer 3DS, thumbnail 1
Reviewing games can be a very tricky business.

At Pocket Gamer, we very often find ourselves engaged in spirited office debates about the best way to write reviews to ensure they are as timely, useful, honest, and fair as they can be.

It's not always easy, though.

So, in the wake of the epic "Doritosgate" debate - which has put extra scrutiny on the way games journalists act and behave - we thought we'd pull back the curtain a little and explain exactly how we've dealt with two recent game review cases.

Call of Duty: Black Marks

Earlier this week, handheld editor Peter Willington and I were up well past our beddy-bye time, as we scrambled to get Pocket Gamer's review of Call of Duty: Black Ops - Declassified written, edited, and published on the site.

Normally, we'll have a generous lead time before the launch of a game. This gives us a chance to play the title, write about it, and get our review ready to go live as the game hits shops.

But, even on the day of the abovementioned Vita shooter's release, Activision's promised review copy still hadn't shown up on our doorstep. The publisher said it didn't have any download codes for us, either.

It might sound like a Royal Mail mishap, but that's definitely not the case - no website had received a copy of the game.

Tricky business

This is actually just the oldest trick in the book, employed by publishers (and movie studios and TV networks) when they know their product isn't much cop.

If you don't give out review code in time for launch and then string the press along with vague promises that the review copy is on its way, you might be able to squeeze out a few 'sight-unseen' sales before the reviews come in that inevitably slate the game.

So, despite being told to hold on and wait for a review copy, we made the decision to ignore Activision, buy the game on the PlayStation Store, and dedicate an entire day to reviewing it.

In the end, we called Call of Duty: Black Ops - Declassified for Vita "a cynical, half-baked, tired little mess of a game". It's also broken, buggy, and crashed our Vita at one point.

We weren't alone in thinking this way, incidentally - the game's sitting at 29 on Metacritic.



Later that same day, we ran into another problem.

Nintendo offered us a review code for its upcoming Paper Mario: Sticker Star RPG. But, it came with a catch. We weren't allowed to play if we didn't agree to a certain rule.

Reviews were only allowed to mention content that takes place before world 3–4.

Wow. That's a quite a lot of game that we're not allowed to talk about. I've heard of embargoes on specific spoilers and plot points before, but this would mean putting the kibosh on well over half the game.

So, we're allowed to write about the first 15 acts, but not allowed to say a single word about the 23 that come after it? Can we say that the game is too long or too short? Or that it starts to go downhill? What if there's a huge sticking point in world 5, or a game-breaking bug in world 6?

We politely turned down Nintendo's review copy.

Other websites around the world have not, we should point out - there will be reviews for this game that are restricted from saying anything about the latter half of the adventure.

So, we've decided to get one of our US correspondents to just buy the game. It would be easier (and cheaper) to play by Nintendo's rules, but we decided against it.



Reviewing games is a big part of our job, and we spend a lot of time making sure reviews are as useful and as honest as they can be. And it seems like every other week we're forced into a situation where we have to make a tricky decision between doing what's easy or doing what's right.

Earlier in the year, we refused a publisher's offer to let us run a review early if we give the game a 9 or higher. We also broke an embargo that would stop us publishing our negative review for 15 hours. We refused to change a score when a stroppy publisher complained, too.

In the end, we just stick by one simple mantra: By putting your interests first, we know our reviews will be as fair and honest as they can be. Hopefully, we've earned your trust.
 

Reviewer photo
Mark Brown 15 November 2012
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Joined:
Oct 2012
Post count:
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@SyFyTy | 10:28 - 20 November 2012
I fully agree with the comment Mr_Bez made, expose those who would throw off the balanace for what they are, corporate crooks, who hide behind 'proceedures' and call it something other than what it is, criminal

These 'embargoes' and moreso the ' only-if rules' seem to be designed to blindside the general publick into buying something that is known broken. 'Intentional misleading' is the basic tactic and premise of all crime. It is basic deception 101.
Joined:
Aug 2012
Post count:
12
Mr Bendel | 14:58 - 16 November 2012
It was very nice of you to write this
Joined:
Jul 2012
Post count:
93
@RaveofRavendale | 08:49 - 16 November 2012
Yeah, the low price was a lovely (unexpected) surprise. AAA studios pricing their games appropriately on console? Frost must be on the way to hell
Joined:
Sep 2011
Post count:
96
Tiel | 08:46 - 16 November 2012
Thanks for the replies, guys.
Useful to understand how it all works. I bought Monkey Ball on the strength of your review (and it's low low price!), and wasn't disappointed. By the later stages it's hard, but fair-just like the original.
Love the website by the way.
Joined:
Jun 2012
Post count:
15
Xphyle | 20:29 - 15 November 2012
It's sad that Pocket Gamer felt it necessary to write this story to justify the poor review that they gave Black Ops: Declassified.
Joined:
Sep 2012
Post count:
3
Deviator | 19:27 - 15 November 2012
I'm not a COD fanboy. I loved Modern Warfare 2 but pretty much lost interest after that so any generalizations made of my comments being those of someone who can't see beyond the COD name or someone with a mindless desire to see a great game on the Vita are misguided.

Putting the Call Of Duty name to one side (along with any expectations that it brings to a game) I think that the Pocket Gamer review was guilty of jumping on the bandwagon of negativity that developed leading up to the release of this game. I found it almost hateful in it's negativity. As if the reviewer(s) had played just enough of the game to validate their preconceptions before deciding to let rip by publishing the first negative review. The slightly condescending explanation above of a day in the life of a review writer unfortunately does nothing to validate the overly negative review and low score given to the game. Resistance: Burning Skies was given a score by Pocket Gamer of 7/10. Call Of Duty: Black Ops - Declasified given a score by Pocket Gamer of 4/10. The scores are telling us that Resistance is much better than Declassified! This is just isn't right.

The movement and responsiveness of the controls in Call Of Duty Declassified are far improved over Resistance. There are issues with logging into online multplayer games (success rate of about 1 in 3 at the moment) but this has always been a common problem with COD around launch time so who cares? What we have here is an online multiplayer FPS on a handheld that is actually pretty good! Resistance was hopeless. Anyone with a Vita who wants to play an FPS on it should go and buy COD Declassified. Is it perfect? No. But it's hell of a lot better than the Pocket Gamer review would lead you to believe. It's worth noting that none of the bigger review sites (IGN, Gamespot, etc) have issued their reviews yet. Maybe they want to spend enough time with the game to ensure they give a balanced review...? Whatever score these sites award the game I doubt we'll see reviews toned as poorly as the Pocket Gamer one. The tone of it bugged me but what prompted me to sign-up and leave feedback on both the Declassified review and the article above is the score..... Call Of Duty: Black Ops - Declasified given a score by PocketGamer of 4/10..... Resistance: Burning Skies given a score by PocketGamer of 7/10 ...sigh... these scores are going to have people going out to buy the less enjoyable game! What on earth were they thinking? Hopeless reviewing.
Joined:
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427
mr_bez | 19:01 - 15 November 2012
"Earlier in the year, we refused a publisher's offer to let us run a review early if we give the game a 9 or higher. We also broke an embargo that would stop us publishing our negative review for 15 hours. We refused to change a score when a stroppy publisher complained, too."

Good yo know you don't kowtow to these demands, but I'd like to see you go further. These publishers should be named and shamed. A bit more of that and there would soon be an end to this sort of practice.
Joined:
Jul 2012
Post count:
93
@RaveofRavendale | 16:17 - 15 November 2012
Hey Tiel, I should answer the question about Monkey Ball Vita, since I reviewed it. The honest answer is I have absolutely no idea. I was provided with review code but given no embargo for when the review could go live, so I went ahead and reviewed it.

It would appear that other outlets were given an embargo date perhaps, hence why they were all far later than mine? It could also be that I was provided with UK code, whereas other sites were forced to wait for US code. Either way, I didn't receive any correspondence from the studio afterwards shouting at me for breaking an embargo, so like I say, no idea what happened there.
Joined:
Aug 2012
Post count:
156
@xeroxeroxero | 16:14 - 15 November 2012
Hi Tiel, thanks for your comment. I'm more than happy to.

Monkey Ball was a fairly standard request for code, which we were then given. We work hard to get review material as early as possible to give you our impressions in a timely manner, but we don't compromise our coverage in exchange for early access.

Hope that answers your question!
Joined:
Oct 2012
Post count:
11
Myron de | 15:58 - 15 November 2012
Well said, Mark, thanks for your honest article. I was surprised a bit, reading all those harsh comments on the review. In all honesty, I guess people where just rooting for a really good system seller on the Vita, but CoD isn't the game that will make this platform shine.

But truth be told, all thebad omens where there from the start: Nihilistic changing it's name and focus, Sony and Activision only barely showing the game off and, as you said, no review copies before launch.

It astounds me that such a great premise got so little love. Sony needs a game to sway the masses, and a portable Black Ops would possible save the Vita in the coming months. But why the hell could Nihilistic work only four/five months on the project? Or: why Nihilistic at all? Resistance wasn't a good start now was it? I guess Sony's Bend could pick this title up more easily, considering they finished Uncharted way before Resistance reached completion.

And even then: a proper game requires two years dev time if it's wants to compete to it's older 360/PS3-brothers, one would think? Why give it only a couple of months?

As I proud Vita owner I would like to see this handheld succeed, but with choices like this sony might botch up this beautiful handhelds future. Yes, there are cool games out right now and even more incoming (Virtue's Last Reward, Persona 4 Golden) but I don't see this continuing if the install base stays this small :)

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